Solos and site-specific works were the dance world’s prevailing themes in 2020, for obvious reasons: people couldn’t touch each other or congregate. But the term site-specific can mean two different things. Sometimes it refers to a live event attended by a real, albeit limited, audience. For example, the LA Dance Project put on a series of drive-in shows, the Kaatsbaan summer festival offered spaced-out picnic blanket-seating, and Troy Schumacher and company are currently staging walk-through “Nutcracker” performances at the Wethersfield Mansion. But site-specific also refers to a dance choreographed for a particular place, which is then filmed and broadcast to a (hopefully) larger audience over the internet. The Joyce Theater recently commissioned indefatigable choreographer Pam Tanowitz and her troupe for this filmic kind of site-specific work. She’s on a roll lately, having made two others in the past few months: one for the New York City Ballet and one for the American Ballet Theatre. There was no need to fear burnout, her offering at the Joyce was the best yet.
The performance, which lasted just under forty minutes, consisted of two works: Gustave Le Gray, No. 2 and Finally Unfinished: Part 1. There was no intermission, and the first piece rolled into the second. Also included in the program was a link to an interactive website devoted to the making of the latter work, called Finally Unfinished: Part 2. (It turns out that interactive just meant you could click on stuff.) Audience members were instructed to consult this companion site, by Jeremy Jacob, either before or after watching Part 1. I watched it afterwards, and this self-described “digital curio case” didn’t do much for me. I thought Part 1 spoke for itself.
Part 2 was at best a waste of time, at worst, pretentious. For example, the list of 18 movie titles scrolling along the bottom of a page as influences was a lot. I hope she meant that they affected her generally. Otherwise, I’m not exactly sure how Barton Fink, Elevator to the Gallows, Talk to Her, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and others figured into Part 1. But clearly Tanowitz is a cinephile, which has served her well during the pandemic. She is one of the few choreographers to understand that the pas de deux between the camera and the dance is as important for online dance viewing as the interaction between the dancers themselves. In fact, during Part I, the camera operators were occasionally visible and costumed like the cast, signifying their importance.
The show commenced with Gustave Le Gray, No. 2, which was a reworking of “Gustave Le Gray, No. 1,” a 2019 cross-collaboration by the Miami City Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem for the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival. Are you having a hard time keeping all the 1’s and 2’s straight? That was the point. Tanowitz said in a voiceover introduction: “we finally finished finally unfinished but it’s never really finished . . . it’s never finished for me, I’ll have to start over after it’s over, not from scratch though.” This sounds loopy, but coming from Tanowitz it’s simply honest. Not only does this statement apply to how she hacked up and recombined old works (including old costumes and even sounds) for this performance, it applies to her overall style. Her modus operandi is to deconstruct classical steps until they are strange and new. If this vocabulary becomes staid through repetition, the uncanny wondrousness of her language is lost. Many choreographers tinker with and update their dances each time they are performed (Balanchine was famous for this), but Tanowitz’s art practically necessitates it.
We finally finished finally unfinished but it’s never really finished . . . it’s never finished for mePam Tanowitz
Gustave Le Gray No. 2 was beautiful, meditative. Caroline Shaw’s wintry piano rippled over the efforts of a stellar quartet of dancers—Jason Collins, Christina Flores, Zachary Gonder, and Victor Lozano—who were clothed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung in plain beige shirts and shorts. The intricate musicality of tiny chug steps was engrossing—the dancers were practically tapping at times. And I loved when they let their arms dangle to deep rumblings of the piano. The piece was performed on the stage like in a normal Joyce show—uncharacteristically straightforward for quarantine Tanowitz. But zoom-ins and camera angles that glimpsed into the wings added texture. Some shots were thought-provoking: a closeup of the dancers’ feet while they were frozen in a relevé position belied how much movement their interstitial musculature required to keep them steady. And this minute shiftiness emphasized the tinkling piano. It was funny to think that from the house this would have read as a moment of stillness.
The piece ended in true stillness, even in closeup, as the dancers sat on the floor and just looked at each other. It was moving—a sensation I experience from Tanowitz pieces usually only when they are danced by her own troupe. Often when ballet dancers do Tanowitz works they appear overinvolved in being so uninvolved—signaling how odd it is to fight their natural tendencies for whole-body coordination. They can broadcast a self-conscious or “isn’t this funny?” vibe. There is always something slightly ironic about her work, but Tanowitz’s dancers are at home in her vocabulary, and therefore they inhabit her steps in a poetic way too. The oddness of a hard flap of the arms—or a quick dip of the head—between balletic positions still registers, but it appears to be a form of self-expression as opposed to repression. When other companies dance her works, I am often amused but rarely transported. In the hands of the home team, her inventive steps carry emotional weight.
While they sat there at the end, the wonderful Melissa Toogood crashed the scene in a brick-patterned hooded jumpsuit (again by Bartelme and Jung), with an identically-clad camera woman following her, as Finally Unfinished Part 1 took over. This is where the performance became site-specific, in the cheekiest of ways. Subway screeches, backstage cues from a 2014 Joyce performance, prompts from Tanowitz, and eventually drums and music (by Ted Hearne) made up the score. Toogood ducked into the wings, dancing around the lighting booms. She would’ve been invisible from the house, but the camera tracked her everywhere. Eventually she began to interact with the back wall of the theater, where it became apparent that her jumpsuit was actually back wall camouflage. She settled there for a spell to watch Victor Lozano, in costume for the previous piece, make a pass across the front of the stage. How many dances has that back wall seen?
It was as if Tanowitz was saying, “if these walls could dance.” The stairs and the chairs too. The dancers personified all aspects of the crowd-less theater, like toys coming to life at night. Part 1 became a game of Joyce Theater anthropomorphism. Dancers crossed the stage in seemingly random attire, but later they would be reframed in the various parts of the auditorium they were dressed to blend into. Lindsey Jones strode onstage in a pink costume with odd zigzags at her midriff, which turned out to be the pattern of the dated aisle carpeting. Brittany Engel-Adams, in the same outfit, joined her for a reverse “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” sequence down the staircases. Zachary Gonder looked like a tin man or a robot until he appeared on the corrugated silver balconies. Toogood, several costume changes later, sat in a seat dressed as a seat, upholstery patterns arced across her torso, wood grain on her back. A camera operator matched her a few rows back. Jason Collins’s short red biketard approximated the curtain, which dropped three-quarters of the way down, Tanowitz’s favored height.
As in her recent film David for ABT, Tanowitz contextualized her dancers as pieces of art as much as the architecture and the costuming. Her inclusion of the camera people and the stagehands’ recorded voices elevated the entire production team to this level as well. It was a wonderful tribute to the building, the staff, the dancers, and everyone involved in putting on a show. At the very end, the whole cast sat in the audience and stared at the empty stage. Then, instead of falling the whole way, the curtain rose back up as if at the beginning of a performance. It was heartbreaking yet hopeful. The Joyce may be dark this year, but its artistic mission is indeed unfinished.